Elvis Aron Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977), often known simply as Elvis but also called "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" or simply "The King," was the most successful early rock and roll performer. As a result of his fame as a singer, he also had a lucrative acting career and continued to draw large crowds as a stage performer until his untimely death at 42 years old.
Presley started as a singer of rockabilly, borrowing songs from both rhythm and blues (R&B) and country. Even though Presley was the first real rock and roll star, he was repeatedly dismissed as vulgar, incompetent and a bad influence on American youth.. While he won his fame as a rock singer, Presley also recorded ballads, country music, and gospel. In a musical career spanning more than two decades, he set records for concert attendance, television ratings, and record sales and became one of the biggest artists in music history. He is a member of an exclusive club of the biggest record sellers in the world that includes Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and The Beatles.
Presley became an icon of modern American pop culture. The raw energy of his performances and early recordings helped unleash the youthful passions that influenced a generation of performance artists, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bruce Springsteen. At the same time, his blending of R&B and country music styles did much to break down racial barriers. Despite this, Presley was often opposed by fundamentalist preachers and segregationist leaning public officials.
During his lucrative acting career in the 1960s that brought him into the American cultural mainstream, Presley's musical popularity waned. Following his acclaimed 1968 comeback; in the 1970s he reemerged as a popular performer of both old and new hit songs on tour, and particularly as a stage performer in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was known for his ornate jump-suits and capes, as well as massive attendance figures. In the last years of his life, he continued to perform before sell-out audiences around the U.S. He died, presumably from a heart attack combined with the overuse of prescribed drugs, in Memphis, Tennessee. His popularity as a singer has survived his death.
On a personal level, Elvis maintained a strong belief in God and spirituality throughout his life. Not only did he consistently play and sing gospel music privately, he also publicly performed gospel songs frequently. He was also a searcher, delving into various forms for spirituality.
Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in a two-room "shotgun house" in East Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon Elvis Presley, a truck driver, and Gladys Love Smith, a sewing machine operator. His twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn, thus leaving Elvis to grow up as an only child. The surname Presley was Anglicized from the German name "Pressler" during the Civil War. His ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler emigrated to America in 1710. Presley was mostly of Scottish and English descent, although his family tree also includes Native American, Irish, and German roots. He was born "Elvis Aron Presley" but later changed his middle name to "Aaron."
Elvis' first documented public performance was in 1945 when he was just ten years old. Decked out in a cowboy outfit at Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, he performed country singer Red Foley's "Old Shep," taking second place, a $5 prize, and a free ticket to all the rides. On his birthday in January 1946 he received a 12-dollar guitar from his mother. Vernon's brother Johnny Smith and Assembly of God pastor Frank Smith gave him basic guitar lessons. In his seventh-grade year he reportedly took this guitar to school every day.
Some years later, in Memphis, Tennessee, the young Presley "spent much of his spare time hanging around the black section of town, especially on Beale Street," where bluesmen like Furry Lewis and B.B. King performed. B.B. King said that he knew Elvis before he was popular. "He used to come around and be around us a lot," King said.
In addition to blues and country, the young Presley was deeply influenced by the gospel music tradition. Presley's family attended the Assembly of God, a Pentecostal Holiness church. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that: "Gospel pervaded Elvis' character and was a defining and enduring influence all of his days."
This potent mix of musical influences flowed into a unique vocal talent. Presley's rich baritone voice possessed an extraordinary compass and a very wide range of vocal color. His range—about two octaves and a third—was impressive, but what made it extraordinary was where its "center of gravity" lay, nearly as strong at the extremes as at its center. He had a unique ability to sound like a full baritone when he hit low notes, and yet remained relaxed and unstrained singing tenor notes. He was equally at home with rough blues shouts, country twang, and bel canto ballads. Finally, Presley possessed enormous charisma and magnetism. He was blessed with the nearly perfect package of talents for the uniquely American art that he was about to create.
On July 18, 1953 Presley paid $3.25 to record his first of two double-sided demos at Sun Studios — "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin," which were popular ballads at the time. He reportedly gave the records to his mother as a belated birthday present. He returned to Sun Studios on January 4, 1954, paying $8.25 to record a second demo, "I'll Never Stand in Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You."
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who had recorded bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton and Junior Parker,was looking for "a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel," with whom he "could make a billion dollars." Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the Presley discs and called him on June 26, 1954 to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although that session was not productive, Phillips put Presley together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954, Presley began singing a blues song written by Arthur Crudup called "That's All Right." Phillips liked the resulting record and on July 19, he released it as a 78-rpm single backed with Presley's hopped-up version of Bill Monroe's bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Memphis radio station WHBQ began playing it two days later, and the record became a local hit. Presley began a regular touring schedule hoping to expand his fame beyond Tennessee. However, Sam Phillips had difficulty persuading Southern white disc jockeys to play Presley's first recordings, having better luck with stations that catered to the Negro sections of Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.
Presley gained popularity as he toured the South. A big opportunity presented itself when country star Hank Snow arranged him to perform at the Grand Ole Opry on October 2, 1954. Presley sang Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” He was reportedly nervous about the bluegrass legend's reaction to his 4/4-time rockabilly version of the original waltz, but Monroe liked the new arrangement. Other reviews of his unconventional style were mixed, and he did not perform there again. However, on October 16, 1954, he made his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride radio broadcast of live country music in Shreveport, Louisiana and was a hit with the show's large audience. His rockabilly genre releases began to reach high on the country charts. Following this, Presley was signed to a one-year contract for a weekly performance on the show, during which time he was introduced to Colonel Tom Parker. The last Sun single, "I Forgot to Remember Forget"/"Mystery Train," hit number one on the national country music charts in late 1955.
On August 15, Presley was signed by "Hank Snow Attractions," a management company jointly owned by Snow and Parker. Shortly thereafter, Parker took full control and negotiated a deal with RCA Victor Records, who acquired Presley's Sun contract from Phillips for $35,000. Presley's first single for RCA, "Heartbreak Hotel," quickly sold one million copies and within a year RCA would go on to sell ten million Presley singles.
Parker was a master promoter who wasted no time in furthering Presley's image. His first big step was to market Presley on television. National exposure began on January 28, 1956, when Presley, Moore, Black and drummer D.J. Fontana made their first National Television appearance on the Dorsey brothers' Stage Show. It was the first of six appearances on the show.
In March 1956, Parker obtained a lucrative deal with Milton Berle (NBC), for two appearances. The second of these—featuring Presley's performance of "Hound Dog"—sparked a storm over his "gyrations" while singing. The controversy lasted throughout the rest of the 1950s. However, that show drew such high ratings that Steve Allen (ABC) booked him for one appearance on his broadcast, on July 1, 1956. That night, Allen, for the first time, beat The Ed Sullivan Show in the Sunday night ratings, prompting Sullivan (CBS) to book Presley for three more appearances, for an unprecedented fee of $50,000. On September 9, 1956, at his first of three appearances on the Sullivan show, Presley drew an estimated 82.5 percent of the television audience, calculated at between 55-60 million viewers. Elvis Presley had arrived.
Presley had no less than five number one hit singles in 1956: "Heartbreak Hotel," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," and "Love Me Tender." In 1957, his songs that reached number one included: "Too Much," "All Shook Up," "Teddy Bear," and "Jailhouse Rock."
By the spring of 1956, Presley had become a national phenomenon and teenagers came to his concerts in unprecedented numbers. When he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair in 1956, one hundred National Guardsmen surrounded the stage to control crowds of excited fans. The singer was considered to represent a threat to the moral well-being of young American women. Many Protestant preachers denounced him as a threat to the morality of Christian youth, and even the national Jesuit magazine America warned its readers against him in an article entitled "Beware Elvis Presley."
Racism also played a role in the opposition to Presley. Social historian Eric Lott said, "All the citizens' councils in the South called Elvis' music 'n-gger music' and were terribly afraid that Elvis, white as he was—was going to corrupt the youth of America."
The Louisville chief of police called for a rule to halt "any lewd, lascivious contortions that would excite the crowd." Even Priscilla Presley confirmed that "My mother stated emphatically that he was 'a bad influence for teenage girls. He arouses things in them that shouldn't be aroused.'" Presley himself complained bitterly about being singled out as “obscene.”
Due to his controversial style of song and stage performances, municipal politicians began denying permits for Presley appearances, often motivating teens to pile into cars and travel elsewhere to see him perform. In August, 1956 in Jacksonville, Florida a local Juvenile Court judge called Presley a savage and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing at Jacksonville's Florida Theatre, justifying the restrictions by saying his music was undermining the youth of America. Throughout the performance, Presley stood still as ordered but poked fun at the judge by wiggling a finger. Similar attempts to stop his "sinful gyrations" continued for more than a year and included his often-noted January 6, 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (during which he performed the spiritual number "Peace in the Valley"), when he was filmed only from the waist up.
Some radio programmers announced they would not play Presley's music on their stations. Many of Presley's records were condemned as wicked by fundamentalist preachers, warning congregations to keep "heathen" rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children's ears. News media published film clips and photos of frenzied girls screaming and fainting as Elvis sang. In the end, however, there was no stopping "Elvis the Pelvis." The attempts to control the Elvis phenomenon actually backfired, creating much free publicity and fueling adolescent hunger for his music. Moreover, the economic power of Presley's fans became evident when they tuned in those radio stations that did play his records.
Presley's impact on the American youth consumer market was noted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on December 31, 1956, when business journalist Louis M. Kohlmeier wrote, "Elvis Presley today is a business," and reported on the singer's record and merchandise sales. Half a century later, historian Ian Brailsford of the University of Auckland in New Zealand commented, "The phenomenal success of Elvis Presley in 1956, convinced many doubters of the financial opportunities existing in the youth market.
A major turn in Presley's career came when Parker negotiated a multi-picture seven-year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The move ultimately shifted Presley's focus from music to films. Under the terms of his movie-making contract, Presley earned a fee for performing plus a percentage of the profits on the films, most of which were huge moneymakers. However, many critics believe the films also packaged Presley's talent too slickly, turning him from a truly great rock singer with an "edge" into syrupy matinee idol.
Presley began his movie career with Love Me Tender (opened on November 15, 1956). The movies Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) are regarded as among his best early films. Most of his movies were musicals based around his performances. Other major titles include "GI Blues," "Blue Hawaii," "Viva Las Vegas!" and "Roustabout." He made a total of 31 feature films.
Although Presley's music sales slipped as his movie career took off, Parker's financial success led to Presley to agree to expand the "Colonel's" management contract to an even 50/50 split. Over the years, much has been written about Parker, most of it critical. None of the critics, however, denies that he played a major role in Presley's meteoric rise to stardom.
On December 20 1957, at the peak of his career, Presley received his draft board notice for his mandatory service in the United States Army. Adoring fans wept to see his pompadour-style hair cropped, and crowds mourned when he left the country to serve in Europe. While working with the Army in Germany, Presley met his wife-to-be—the then 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu.
His marriage to this "child bride" was controversial, but by serving honorably in the military, Presley gained respect from older and more conservative crowds who initially disliked him before he entered the Army. Presley also reportedly became more mature and lost his raw and rebellious edge during this period.
Soon after his discharge from the military, at Colonel Parker's command, Presley withdrew from concerts and television appearances in order to make more movies. His last television appearance for several years would be with Frank Sinatra on NBC entitled "Welcome Home Elvis," where he sang "Witchcraft/Love Me Tender" with Sinatra.
Presley was an enthusiastic James Dean fan and returned from the military eager to make a career as a movie star. However, his popularity as a singer now began to wane noticeably, and few of his releases neared the top of the charts, let alone reaching number one. "He blamed his fading popularity on his humdrum movies," Priscilla Presley recalled in her 1985 autobiography, Elvis and Me. "He loathed their stock plots and short shooting schedules. He could have demanded better, more substantial scripts but he didn't."
Although some film critics excoriated these movies for their lack of depth, the fans turned out, and they were enormously profitable. Presley made 27 movies during the 1960s, "which had grossed about $130 million, and he had sold a hundred million records, which had made $150 million."
Dissatisfied with the direction his career had taken and upset over his eclipse by such groups as the Beatles, Elvis sought to return to rock and roll roots. This led to a triumphant television performance, later dubbed the '68 Comeback Special, aired on the NBC television network on December 3, 1968 and released as an album by RCA. The comeback of 1968, was followed by a 1969 return to live performances, first in Las Vegas and then across the United States. The concerts were noted for the constant stream of sold-out shows, with many setting attendance records in the venues where he performed. Two concert films were also released: Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972).
After seven years off the top of the singles charts, Presley finally hit number one again with "Suspicious Minds," which topped the Billboard music charts on November 1, 1969. This was the last time any song by Presley reached number one on the Hot 100. However, "Burning Love" reached two in September 1972, and "A Little Less Conversation" topped the Hot Singles Sales chart in 2002. "In the Ghetto"—a socially conscious song about the life of impoverished urban blacks—reached number one in West Germany in 1969, and "The Wonder of You" did so in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1970.
By this time, Presley viewed himself as a mainstay of American culture and sought to do his part as a good citizen. In 1970, he wrote to J. Edgar Hoover requesting to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the height of its campaign against far left political activism. In December of that year he met with President Richard Nixon. According to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, the photograph of President Nixon's meeting with Presley in the Oval Office is the most requested image in the history of the U.S. Government.
Presley's "Aloha from Hawaii" concert in January 1973, was the first of its kind to be broadcast worldwide via satellite and was seen by at least one billion viewers worldwide. The RCA soundtrack album to the show reached number one on the Long Playing (record) (LP) album charts.
Elvis recorded a number of country music hits in his final years. "Way Down" was languishing in the American Country Music charts shortly before his death in 1977, but reached number one the week after his death. It also topped the UK pop charts at the same time.
His greatest success in the 1970s was as a stage performer, as he maintained a loyal fan base of no-longer-young fans. Between 1969 and 1977 Presley gave over one thousand sold-out performances in Las Vegas and on tour. He was the first artist to have four shows in a row sold to capacity crowds at New York's Madison Square Garden.
His love for religious music also came to the fore during this time. In 1971, to his death in 1977, Presley employed the Stamps Quartet, a gospel group, for his backup vocals. Reportedly he invited—some say ordered&mdsh;his backup musicians to nightly jam sessions in his rooms in which gospel songs were the main musical fare. He recorded several gospel albums and earned three Grammy Awards for his gospel music. In his later years his live stage performances almost always included a rendition of How Great Thou Art, the nineteenth century gospel song made famous by George Beverly Shea. Although some critics say that Elvis travestied, commercialized and soft-soaped gospel "to the point where it became nauseating.", 24 years after his death, the Gospel Music Association inducted him into its Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
After his divorce in 1973, Presley became increasingly isolated, overweight, and battling an addiction to prescription drugs which took a heavy toll on his appearance, health, and performances. He made his final live concert appearance in Indianapolis at the Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977.
On August 16, 1977, at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, Presley was found lying on the floor of his bedroom's bathroom by his fiancee, Ginger Alden, who had been asleep. He was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 3:30 P.M. Presley was 42 years old.
At a press conference following his death, one of the medical examiners declared that he had died of a heart attack. Heart disease was very prevalent in his family. His mother, Gladys Presley, had died of a heart attack brought on by acute hepatitis at age 46. Presley's father Vernon died of heart failure two years after his son, at age 63.
Rolling Stone magazine devoted an entire issue to Presley (RS 248) and his funeral was a national media event.Hundreds of thousands of Presley fans, the press, and celebrities lined the street to witness Presley's funeral and Jackie Kahane gave the eulogy.
Presley was originally buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis next to his mother. After an attempted theft of the body, his remains and his mother's remains were moved to Graceland to the "meditation gardens."
Following Presley's death, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said:
Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense and he was a symbol to people the world over, of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.
Controversy surrounded Presley's death with detractors alleging suicide and defenders claiming that stories of his drug abuse were highly exaggerated. Rumors that his death was faked persist to this day, although Elvis "sightings" have become increasingly rare in recent years.
Among his many accomplishments, Presley is only one of four artists (Roy Orbison, Guns N' Roses and Nelly being the others) to ever have two top five albums on the charts simultaneously. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001).
Upon announcing that Presley's home, the Graceland Mansion, was being designated as a National Historic Landmark, U.S Interior Secretary Gale Norton noted on March 27, 2006, that “It didn’t take Americans and the rest of the world long to discover Elvis Presley; and it is clear they will never forget him. His popularity continues to thrive nearly 29 years after his passing, with each new generation connecting with him in a significant way.”
Interest in Presley's recordings returned during the buildup to the 2000 World Cup, when Nike used a Junkie XL remixed version of his "A Little Less Conversation" (credited as "Elvis Vs JXL") as the background music to a series of TV commercials featuring international football (soccer)|soccer stars. The remix hit number one in over 20 countries, including the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia. At about the same time, a compilation of Presley's US and UK Number 1 hits, Elvis: 30, was being prepared for release. "A Little Less Conversation" (remix version) was quickly added as the album's 31st track just before release in October 2002.
Nearly 50 years after Presley made his first hit record and 25 years after his death, the compilation reached number one on the charts in the US, the UK, Australia and many other countries. A re-release from it, "Burning Love," also made the Australian top 40 later in the year.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary in mid-2004 of Presley's first professional recording, "That's All Right," it was re-released, and made the charts around the world, including top three in the UK and top 40 in Australia.
In early 2005 in the United Kingdom, RCA began to re-issue Presley's 18 UK number-one singles as CD-singles in the order they were originally released, one of them a week. The first of these re-issues, "All Shook Up," was ineligible to chart due to its being sold together with a collector's box which holds all 18 singles in it (it actually sold enough to be number two). The second, "Jailhouse Rock," was the number one in the first chart of 2005, and "One Night"/"I Got Stung," the third in the series, replaced it on the January 16 chart (and thus becoming the 1000th UK number one entry).
CBS aired a TV miniseries in 2005, Elvis starring Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Presley.
A channel on the Sirius Satellite Radio subscriber service is devoted to the life and music of Presley, with all broadcasts originating from Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.
In mid October of 2005, Variety named the top 100 entertainment icons of the 20th century, with Presley landing on the top ten, along with the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, James Dean and Mickey Mouse.
A week later, Forbes magazine named Presley, for the fifth straight year, the top-earning dead celebrity, grossing US$45 million for the Presley estate during the period from October of 2004, to October 2005. Forbes pointed out that CKX (an entertaiment company) spent $100 million in cash, and stock, for an 85 percent interest in Presley's income stream in February 2005.
Total album sales as of 2006, 120 million US, 200 million worldwide
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